For years now, the Ball State men’s volleyball team has found success through blocking and digging but not attacking.
Ball State leads the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association in both blocks and digs per set, establishing an identity that forces opponents into mistakes.
The mindset starts with head coach Joel Walton and filters down to his team. He views himself as a defensive coach and takes advantage of his personnel, including tall, athletics middle blockers, a fast and physical setter and a quick libero.
Most of all, he wants his players to fly to the ball and be willing to go to the ground to save the ball.
“It’s going to hurt a little bit, you’re going to be getting some raspberries on your hip or back depending on how you fall,” Walton said. “There will be bruises on your body if you’re making aggressive defensive plays, but we teach them how to fall.”
During practice, Ball State rolls out a cushioned wrestling mat. The players use the mat to execute drills where they’re taught how to fall, roll and dive in order to protect their bodies. The players are strongly encouraged to wear knee pads, a move that isn’t uniform across the country.
The practice has paid off for Ball State, as it’s averaging 10.39 digs per set, a full dig more than second place Grand Canyon. Libero David Ryan Vander Meer also leads the conference individually with 2.66 digs per set.
“You work on making good blocking and defensive movements,” Vander Meer said. “When the blockers get into a good spot, it makes it easier for the passers to line up behind the block and dig the ball.”
When blockers jump at the net and spread their arms out, it leaves the area behind their heads open. Outside attackers and the libero will quickly shift into that gap, minimizing chances for a kill.
Another blocking strategy Ball State uses involves placing the hands and arms close together and funneling the ball into the defense. If the attack isn’t rejected, it’ll move toward a defender who can initiate the offense.
The Cardinals lead the MIVA with 3.29 blocks per set. Middle attacker Matt Leske leads the nation with an average of 1.58.
“We work on how to make those plays, and we expect our players to go all out to keep the rally alive,” Walton said. “We analyze our opponents so we know what shots they like to hit, and we try to take away a player’s favorite shot and force him into something that they aren’t as comfortable with.”
Another factor in Ball State’s defense is setter Graham McIlvaine. Walton described him as one of the fastest to the pins, and his size presents a challenge for opponents who aren’t used to going up against a setter at the net.
Ball State opponents are hitting just .191 this season.
“You can’t always stay on your feet on defense and sometimes, you have to lay out,” Vander Meer said. “You have to make some athletic moves, dive, hit a pole, trip one of your teammates, but if it gets the ball up, it’s worth it.”